As we were taxiing to the runway in NYC, the pilot directed us to look out the window to the right. The NASA space shuttle, right there. Completely surreal.
Food on the plane was great, got a few hours sleep. I studied some Turkish vocabulary. Writing it out made it easier for me to notice the undotted I’s etc. Just for the record, I speak enough Turkish to be politely lost and confused.
I am also reading Norman Itzkowitz’s Ottoman Empire and Islamic Tradition. It's only about 100 pages long; clear and cogent.
Before I left home, I had been reading Barbara Tuchman’s On Doing History and her point about how artistry comes into play when writing about history is great and makes me understand why such a tiny little book of Turkish history is so much more readable compared to some of the tomes sitting on my shelf at home.
Her main points were about brevity and the importance of not putting everything in; that the difficulty and art is in knowing what to leave out. This book is very good at this, describing the big factors of the Turkic tribes' gradual takeover of Anatolia and leaving out the listing of unnecessary people and places. After reading this, I think I will have better luck with some of the bigger volumes that currently just make me snore. I always do a better job of retaining details when I have a big-picture framework to give them some coherence and pattern.
I landed in the afternoon, it was 75 degrees F and sunny. No problems at the airport. Most people didn’t speak English, just enough to sell me a visa and get me through customs. It was very quiet at the airport, though it’s huge and new it was not busy. It was noon on a Tuesday, though, at the very beginning of the busy season.
I exchanged $50 in the airport, the exchange rate was 1.757 (compared to 1.5 in NYC) which means that my $50 bought me 87.85 lira, each lira cost me .57. Which means that for purchases, I can estimate at 60 cents to the lira.
I forgot to write down the name of the metro station for Basma’s house before I left home. Very silly. My cell phone will work in Turkey, but is almost unbelievably expensive. I turned it off in New York and it won't go back on until I go back. I have gotten used to having a smart phone and in my rush to leave I didn't print out all the information I needed.
The maps at the airport/metro station were pretty terrible if you don't know anything about the city. One map had the tram and subway lines but no street names, districts or neighborhood markings. The other map had main streets and districts but no public transport information. I had forgotten the necessity of spending some money on a truly useful map before leaving home.
So I had no map and no phone number for Basma, only an address that was in a format that made no sense to me. But it's an adventure, right? I made sure I had a little cash in the local currency before I left the airport so I could catch a cab if necessary. I knew which tram station to take, but getting there was a little tricky.
The tram line from Ataturk airport crosses the tram line I needed. But it crosses in two places and I got turned around. I managed to get on the right tram line, going in the wrong direction. But I had daylight and local currency so that was kind of fun, actually.
Only about 30% of the women I saw were wearing hijab (a scarf covering the head and neck but not the face). Other women dressed all over the map, girls in tight leggings etc. I saw only one woman in a skirt above the knee and didn’t notice much cleavage on anyone.
I got to Haseki station and though I was sure it was the right station, I was completely lost. The posted map was no help since it wasn't clear how it was oriented. Street signs are not common. They exist, but not systematically on every street corner.
Several people tried to help me but nobody really knew where the street was. They all assured me it must be nearby. I knew intellectually that Istanbul is 'hilly', but intellect is no help when you've been awake for 24 hours and are dragging a wheeled suitcase over cobblestones on streets that look like San Francisco. I started to get cranky and stubborn and that was my clue that I was too tired to think or act effectively and I hailed a cab.
Istanbul cabbies have about the same reputation as cabbies in other major cities so I was cautious. I asked the rate before I let him touch my suitcase and made sure he turned on the meter. He had no idea about the address but he persevered until he found it. He drove in circles for about 20 minutes, on both sides of the tramway, stopping and asking probably a dozen people and being cheerful and determined about it.
But it was clear that the cabbie and all the people he asked considered me slightly daft for having no cell phone.
We finally found the street, one block long and narrow. The address wasn't clearly marked and the cabbie, the corner shopkeeper and I were contemplating how to get inside a locked apartment building that might or might not be the right one when we were approached by a man who turned out to be one of Basma's guests.
"You are coming to stay with Basma? Basma is worried about you. Let me get your suitcase. Welcome to Istanbul"
The cab fare was TL 8.5. Instead of rounding up (customary) I gave him 10tl because he persevered until he found it. Well worth the $6 USD.
I had found the flat on www.airbnb.com. I knew that Basma was about my age, Egyptian and speaks English, Turkish and Arabic. I had a few choices of rooms in my price and location range, but it was the profile picture that sealed the deal.
Something about her face suggested that perhaps we would be friends. In the photos, she wears a hijab and I was curious to experience life from her perspective. I know many Muslims in the United States. Some of the women wear hijab, some do not. But living in a city where Muslims are in the majority (though the government is secular) is surely a different experience.
Basma had been waiting all morning, had tried calling and was worried about me. Her manner, and her posture of warm worry was my first indication that fortune had sent me to a woman with the same personality as my grandmother.
My grandmother and I are very close and when I left Atlanta she was concerned about whether I would eat well and who would take care of me. My grandmother is a strong Baptist Christian and I know she prays for me. I think it is marvelous that her God chose to answer her prayer by sending me to a Muslim woman. This fits in conveniently with my ideas about the universe and a loving god.
The apartment is small, but nicely furnished, very clean and bright. I will be sharing a room with her and she has other guests coming in as well. She is an Arabic and English teacher and volunteers for non-profits, mostly concerned with refugee seekers. She’s a trained social worker, but nobody has funding here (just like in the US) so she volunteers. She also went to the American University in Cairo like my friend Majda and I want to talk to her more about that.
The guest who rescued me on the street is here with his wife Manil. They are both Iranian, studying in London Ontario Canada. She’s working on her Ph.d in Comparative Literature and he on his in Chemical Engineering. I liked them immediately. They are warm and friendly. Their last day in Istanbul is my first day and it is clear that they hope I love it as much as they have.
Manil, her husband, Basma and I went to lunch at a ready-food place nearby. I had read about this common type of local inexpensive restaurant and was anxious to try one. [The standard restaurant
in Turkey (except fine dining) either has a kitchen that you go into to choose your food or a kitchen that is entirely visible, usually at the front of the restaurant.]
It's not what Americans are used to but I found that I really loved being about to look at the food before I ordered it and make my own judgement about the cleanliness of the kitchen and the freshness of the food. [My entire trip there were only a few restaurants that didn't meet my standards and they were easy to avoid.]
For lunch, I had a flattened softball-sized serving of ‘meat’ [which I discover later usually means 'mutton'] and veggies roasted together, eggplant, carrots, peas and mushrooms, covered in cheese. There were big plastic bins of sliced French bread on the table. It was like the Turkish food I've had in the US, slow cooked and savory in a way that feels like comfort food to me.
I tried ayran, which is one of the 'national' drinks of the Turks, but I was not crazy about it. It tastes like buttermilk or a salted lassi and since I don't like either one, it was no great surprise. [It is always surprising to me to remember how socialized Americans are to only drink sweet things. Many other cuisines have savory or salty drinks, but to my American palate it intuitively tastes 'wrong'. This is probably something I should get over for the sake of my health, but there it is. When Americans drink something savory or salty, we tend to classify it as a liquid 'food', like broth. Alcohol seems to be the exception.]
After lunch we had Turkish tea, which Basma finds inferior to Egyptian tea. It was quite bitter, so I may agree with her. The bill was 7.5tl ($4.50 ). [This restaurant quickly became my favorite place to pick up a quick dinner on the way back to the flat. They quickly accepted me as a 'regular', and I think I never spent more than 8tl on any meal.]
As soon as we got back to the flat, Basma made ‘proper’ Egyptian tea and it was much better.
The Iranians are delightful. They left today at 5 and I was very sorry to see them go. They have my email and promises were made to keep in touch. They have invited me to Iran and confirmed that the media makes things sound much more dangerous than they actually are.
Manil was very accepting of my interest in Persia and Persian classical dance and being raised Baha'i. She assured me that it is the government that is anti-Baha'i, not most Persians.
Manil and I talked on the walk to the restaurant in that very direct way of people who like one another and know they haven't much time. At lunch when her husband explained something basic about Istanbul to me, she cut in, “She knows way more about Turkey than we do.” And later to she told him, “She knows more about our culture than we do. She was raised Baha'i so she counts as half-Persian already”.
[I’ve always been terrified of the judgment of the people whose culture I love so much, but, she made me feel interesting, not weird or lacking in credibility because I have the 'wrong' genes to appreciate a culture and history. Even though Iranian women that I have known have been mostly pleased that I am interested in their culture and dance, I'm still afraid of giving offense or being insensitive.]
[Teaching Persian dance to Iranian women always makes me sweat. But many of the Iranian women my age that I know had to leave Iran when they were quite young and many of them are eager to learn aspects of their culture such as dance and traditional cooking.]
[One community I was in years ago asked me to teach them to dance and when I hesitated they reminded me that they had all learned to cook Iranian cuisine from a Baha'i convert from Sweden. Ok, point taken.]
After they left, Basma declared it to be nap time and so it was. I slept pretty well, considering, waking up at 8pm and taking about a half hour to be functional. My body is working pretty well, especially considering the trip and the dragging of the suitcase up and down the hills. [I have fibromyalgia and some permanent damage from being hit by a bus a few years ago, so this is not a minor consideration.]
The bed is a futon with a memory foam mattres, it’s not luxurious but it is comfortable and will be just fine. The house has a Western 'regular' toilet and the Turkish kind, and a shower. The kitchen is small but clean and functional, the refrigerator is in the flat's foyer.
It is a third floor walk up. I know I am out of breath when I get to the top. Not a question I thought to ask when I was making reservations. The stairs are steep, dark and curving, with motion activated lights that go out too fast for someone unfamiliar with the them. The stairs are a mottled stone and concrete and it plays havoc with my depth perception.
I have to make sure I have enough energy at the end of the day to make it up the stairs and I am very glad I brought a small reading light with a clip to help me manage when the lights go out. [Within about a week, my body knows the stairs and I navigate easily, but in the beginning it was something I had to concentrate on.]
The apartment is in a little back alley, charming but hard to find. [ I only see other tenants a few times while I am there and never hear them in the flat.] The neighborhood is working class but feels reasonably safe.
[I was taught early on to be street smart: carry yourself as if you know exactly where you are going and have a right to be where you are, be aware of everything around you, keep your hand on your bag at all times, the keys in your hand can be a weapon.]
[I am also not afraid to ask directions or tell somebody to go away if they are bothering me and not too stubborn to seek help in a well-lit and populated place if I need to. There is a careful balance in urban living anywhere in the world: be cautious and aware, not meek and frightened and not too trusting. I quickly learned that the only real danger in the neighborhood is gossip. It's like a tiny village and I blend in just enough over the time that I am there that the grumpy grannies in the neighborhood scowl at me if I wear the wrong thing.]
[I quickly learn that 'tourists' and 'Americans' are in their own categories and are beyond interest and understanding. But if you might be a local girl and your hemline is an inch or two too short, they will tell you so. They keep an eye on Basma as a single Muslim woman living alone who has many guests and it makes her absolutely crazy.]
[I have the very American reaction that I don't really care if I meet the approval of everyone on my block. I'm not suggesting I am right or wrong, it's just my immediate reaction. And I get to go home in a few weeks, she doesn't]
I planned to use only public transportation while I am in Istanbul but I had been warned about Turkish driving patterns and I'm glad I knew to what to expect.
Rule 1: Pedestrians do not have the right of way.
Rule 2: see above.
Rule 3: driving and parking on sidewalks is completely normal and expected.
Rule 4: horns are a communication method. If a vehicle honks its horn at a pedestrian this translates to, "I hope you start running soon because I am not stopping."
[For the first few days, I cross the streets by following clusters of older women, or women with children and baby carriages. My presumption was that they would be the most cautious and risk-averse. Toward the end of my trip I followed a group of jay-walking teenage boys across a rush-hour intersection. That was a bad and scary plan.]
The side streets and allies are very narrow and the cab driver made a maneuver today that I intellectually knew he was capable of, but the minimum safe distance between cars, and cars and pedestrians is measured in fractions of inches, not feet. It will take a little while to get used to, especially since the bus accident I mentioned earlier happened while I was a pedestrian in a crosswalk.
Manil and her husband came to take tea with us before they left at 5pm. I liked them very much and was sorry to see them go.
The balcony door is often left open for the breeze and I hear the call to prayer echoing from numberless mosques in the dusk and I realize that I am really in Istanbul.
The call to prayer is recited in refrains. It seems that the Blue Mosque, in the center of the old city, begins first. The call expands in widening circles, each muzzein pauses to let the first refrain fade, then continues the call and the evening descends.